Stories

A Garden Story…

We at Evergreen Elm are famous for saying “It’s Not Just About the Vegetables” when talking about our Garden or Horticulture Therapy program and it’s not.

The program established in 1990 was an attempt to introduce the individuals to something new and different as well as being able to learn about the gardening process from beginning to end. This includes getting the soil ready, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, etc.

However at Evergreen Elm it is much more. Its learning responsibility, team work, patience, self-control, developing fine and gross motor skills, and community integration and socialization. We also work on being ecologically and environmentally friendly making sure that we compost where we can and use no chemicals in our garden.

A true success story is about an individual who before working in the garden dealt with an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as well as other Mental Health issues and an Intellectual Disabilities Diagnosis. After her first season in the garden she was 30 pounds lighter, able to stop taking one of the psychotropic medications she had been prescribed and was able to understand and cope with her diagnosis much easier. She continues to work in the garden to this day.

This is just one of the many success stories from our 2/3 of an acre plot located in Bradford, PA.

Josh CurcioA Garden Story…
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Randy Johnson – Gardner Emeritus

When longtime Evergreen Elm gardener Betty Bailey couldn’t plant her red runner beans this spring because of a health problem, it was a chance for someone else to step in, maybe win a blue ribbon in her absence.

Instead, fellow gardener Randy Johnson stepped up. He was asked if he would plant Betty’s beans for her, and possibly enter them in her name  at the McKean County Fair. His answer surprised no one.

Betty is Randy’s friend. Randy misses her. And Randy is, in the words of master gardener L.A. Rotheraine, “absolutely unselfish.” Of course he would do it.

On a sweltering day in the midst of a heat wave in July, with the fair fast approaching, Betty’s beans are thriving again, a tangle of bright red flowers and heart-shaped leaves
vining skyward.

In the fall of 2001, Randy was helping L.A. with a land reclamation project for the Bradford City Water Authority. They were spraying a liquid compost preparation over residual water waste — sludge — to try and get grain seeds to grow on previously barren land. The seeds did grow, again proving the effectiveness of biodynamic techniques.

It was a success, but the pair also ended up with the story of a lifetime. Somehow, L.A., who is 6’2, fell into a four-foot pit of sludge. He was in up to his knees, trying to move his legs
but feeling like he was in quicksand. Randy didn’t hesitate, hopping in and pulling out his friend.

“Randy has a heart of gold,” says Sheila Potter, supervisor of the residential group home on West Corydon Street where he lives. Two stories, Randy in a nutshell. Others who know this heart of gold could tell countless more.

At 55, Randy Johnson is slowing down like anyone else, but he still looks fit in his brown SBU tee shirt. Working outside a lot will do that. It’s mid-morning and he and L.A. are talking to a visitor in the grapevinecovered arbor at the back of the garden, where the air is cool, relatively speaking. In the sun, it’s already in the mid-80s and climbing.

Randy is 5’8, almost as tall as the nearby cherry tomato plant that will surpass 12 feet in the coming weeks. He tilts his head to the side when he’s especially interested in what’s being said, inspecting the world with his steely blue eyes.

His gray hair is cut in a buzz, and he’s a beehive of energy. When L.A. mentions the need for a second golden zucchini planting, Randy jumps up, tugs on his jeans and reaches for a cigarette. “Where are we going to plant them?” asks L.A. “Right over there,” Randy says, pointing toward an empty spot in the garden. L.A. says that’s exactly what he was thinking.

It’s no wonder the two complete each other’s thoughts. Randy and L.A. have been together since the building of the garden in 1990. The plot of land on Elm Street starting up the hill toward High is in a neighborhood that was once home to hundreds of Italian immigrant families, many of whom had gardens. That’s not to say Randy and L.A. inherited an oasis lovingly nurtured through the generations.

They actually inherited a vacant lot strewn with junk and debris and broken foundations where houses once stood. Along with the late Larry Lind, Randy and L.A. were the groundbreakers of Evergreen Elm’s Garden Therapy program, but they didn’t break much ground — they just built over top of the mess. Today, the garden is a sanctuary above the railroad tracks, the concrete flood control walls and the 219 expressway lanes, above River Street, where the Prohibition-era gangster Al Ritchie was murdered. Cabbage, squash, zucchini, hot and sweet peppers, eggplant, lettuce, carrots, herbs, beets and of course tomatoes are planted on mounds in neat rows. Sunflowers, Randy’s favorite, shoot up here and there.

A white fence keeps the world out, but rabbits and woodchucks find a way in. In the spirit of the place, they’re not poisoned, shot or trapped. They’re offered a decoy area of tender lettuce, a tantalizing buffet, an arrangement. It works.

Seven residents work in the garden. Three of them are regular planters. Randy used to work here every day, but now he just comes on Thursday afternoons after finishing work at Futures, where he enjoys washing dishes in the cafeteria.

They do biodynamic gardening: a nod to the heavens, no chemicals and nothing artificial, certainly not the hard work, camaraderie, care and love put into the earth here.

That second crop of golden zucchini is needed because the first one quickly sold out to local restaurants like Glendorn and the Pennhills Club. So this biodynamic duo leaves the protection of the arbor to get to work in the baking sun.

Randy puts on work gloves that look like they’ve been around since the first day he got here, picks out a zucchini plant and waits for L.A. to dig a shallow hole. Randy doesn’t exactly baby the tender vegetation, tossing it in from hip height and then pulling a bit of the soil around the plant. He’s done this a time or two.

L.A. points to where the water should go, and Randy hits the spot. In a month or so, it’ll be harvest time again. While working, Randy channels all that nervous energy. He looks calm and relaxed. “It gives him something do,” says Sheila. “He doesn’t have a lot of things to do with his time.”

A few yards away, Randy’s tomatoes are getting there. Large green ones are ready to be picked. He started his tomato seeds in a tray in early March, and by Good Friday, which was on March 29 this year, his eight tomato plants were in the ground. They had to be covered a few times, including during May’s brief flurry of snow.

In early August, L.A. will sit some of the gardeners down at a table inside the arbor and give them numbers on cards. They’ll taste tomatoes and, like Olympic judges, flip up a score. It’s how L.A. finds out if the tomatoes are ready. Most who hear this job description say the same thing — where do I sign up?

Some of the aims of garden therapy are to improve physical and mental well being, ease anger and anxiety, encourage teamwork and socialization, and promote community interaction.

That interaction is especially important. Randy often accompanies L.A. to Glendorn, where Randy knows the chef. It follows that now the chef knows Randy. Little by little, perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities change.

It’s come a long way since the early 1990s when L.A. remembers open hostility for the garden and adjacent group home. Only a bit of that remains today, he says.

Randy and L.A. have stood together in a sludge pit, stood together on a vacant lot, stood shoulder to shoulder together to raise a bountiful garden out of blighted soil.

“Randy’s one of my closest friends in the world,” says L.A. “You couldn’t ask for a better soul and spirit. If the world was full of Randy Johnsons, there would be no wars.” And certainly no shortage of zucchini.

Josh CurcioRandy Johnson – Gardner Emeritus
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Caroline McCool – Path to Recovery

Caroline McCool was out for a walk in October 2010, enjoying one of the last warm days of the year. Fall is her favorite season. She headed over the bridge behind Blaisdell Hall, past the ponds on the “Pitt trail” and beyond the blueberry bushes.

Puppy, her black lab/American Boxer mix, trotted along. When Caroline got to the green metal post at Clarks Lane that marks the end of the trail, she — didn’t turn around. She kept going. Across the road. Through the culvert. Into the brush. Sometime after that, she called her son on her cell phone and said she was lost. A search by her family came up empty. The police were called. When Caroline was finally found at Marilla Reservoir, about four miles from Clarks Lane, she couldn’t tellany one exactly how she got there. She seemed OK, on the outside, and Puppy was still by her side. “He wasn’t going to let anything happen to me,” she says today.

But something had happened to her, and, in reality, she was still verymuch lost.

Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes dramatic shifts in mood and energy, from manic highs to depressive lows. (Some call it manic-depressive illness.)

When Caroline was taken from Marilla to Bradford Regional Medical Center, she was admitted for treatment of this condition, one that affects 5.7 million Americans. Bipolar disorder can be severely debilitating, but it also can be effectively treated with medications and talk therapy.

In severe cases, some people need electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Caroline ended up having four such treatments, and they helped, the fourth one being the key. “Dr. Laroche brought me back to reality. I wouldn’t be sitting here talking without him,” she says.

Lois Sager was working at the hospital and remembers the catatonic state Caroline was in before ECT. “It really was night and day, the difference. She came back to life,” says Lois, who helped prep Caroline for her treatments.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of Caroline’s battle with bipolar disorder. This battle lasts a lifetime. The next challenge was to stay on her medications at home. She couldn’t. “It’s not that I didn’t want to take them,” she says. “I just would forget. It was tough to keep track.”

She took different meds in the morning and at night, meds for different health problems, different doses. It was too much.

While Caroline struggled to stay on her meds throughout 2011, Evergreen Elm’s Mobile Medication program was getting underway with
someone like her in mind.

By Christmastime, she was ready to benefit from the program, and her referral to it marked another turning point in her recovery. Lois, by then Evergreen Elm’s Mobile Medication
supervisor, and registered nurse Heather Reed started going to Caroline’s apartment twice a day to make sure she took her meds.

They gave her educational materials about her meds, placed reminders around the apartment and set up color-coded trays for her pills.

“We taught her that taking medications for bipolar disorder is just like taking medications for any other disease,” says Lois.

The stress of not working complicated things, but throughout 2012, Caroline gradually got better at adhering to her treatment plan. Lois and Heather started going once a day, then three times a week and eventually hardly at all.

When Caroline was ready to be discharged from the program in January 2013, it was not a happy day of graduation. “I was sad. You and Heather were in my life and were my friends,” she tells Lois.

“If something was bothering me, I could bring it up. Heather told me to call her anytime. You guys were there for me.”

Today, the meds are working. She still has the reminders around her apartment. It’s a challenge to stick to the schedule, but she’s managing. “I keep thinking I’m falling back. I had
that feeling last week. But I wouldn’t let it happen. I won’t let it happen,” she says. There’s determination, almost defiance in her hazel eyes.

Caroline is 45 with long, loosely curled strawberry blonde hair. With her openly expressed opinions, bright red finger nails and array of tattoos, she comes off as a bit of a free spirit. A cross on her left arm is bordered by the names of four lost loved ones, including a young niece and nephew. A rose with a tiny hummingbird on her right calf honors her two sons, mom and dad.

The unicorn and Tasmanian devil are just for fun.

Her late mother, also named Caroline, lived with bipolar disorder as well. The illness often runs in families. “Thank you, Mom!” she says with just a hint of sarcasm, pointing skyward. The two weren’t close until later in their relationship. Caroline tears up when she talks about finishing a craft project her mother was working on when she died, needlepoint on canvas with
butterflies and flowers.

She also remembers a Halloween Day 15 years ago when she was driving with her mother and turned to her and said, “Mom, I need help.”

Caroline thinks back on days she would curl up and “sleep my life away,” her dog providing the only motivation to get out of bed. She’s hopeful those times are behind her, and she’s hopeful about the future.

“If I don’t look for my future, what else do I have? Am I waiting for my death? I don’t want to think that way. I’m waiting for the next change in mylife,” she says.

After working for 20 years at Pepperell Braiding in Bradford, she now expresses an interest in becoming a missionary. She also wants to do something to change perceptions about mental illness (for one, “we’re not criminals”). Caroline broke down in tears at the Relay for Life when she thought about how poorly attended the walk for mental illness awareness had been. “We need something bigger for mental health,” she says.

She’s keeping an eye out for the “right guy,” despite some bad experiences in the past. When her mom was dying seven years ago, she said, “Don’t say no to marriage.” Caroline says she won’t.

Someone recently told her she needs to get a life, and that really ticked her off. “I have a life!” she says. She has two adult sons, a close friend in her building and peers in Dickinson’s Mental Health Center’s Partial Hospitalization program whom she considers family. She has Puppy, and now Puppy has a kitten to play with. And she crochets blankets and baby hats for Healthy Beginnings Plus.

Caroline spoke openly, graciously and unselfishly in the gazebo along the trail where things went so wrong on that autumn afternoon three years ago. When the interview was over, she walked past the ponds, facing a gauntlet of gypsy moths that were caterpillars just a few days before. Then she headed back over the bridge, this time making a return trip, on the way to that next change in her own life.

Josh CurcioCaroline McCool – Path to Recovery
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Jeff Hurd – His World of Legos

As if he were a world traveler on a budget, Jeff Hurd had to decide between the Tower Bridge of London and the Eiffel Tower. Well, Jeff’s a working man. He knows the value of a buck. When it came time to buy a new Lego set, he knew he couldn’t afford Paris.

In choosing London, Jeff hardly had to settle. The set he ended up with, depicting that city’s famous span over the River Thames, is quite spectacular. It’s over three feet long, has 4,295 pieces, and includes a working drawbridge and an iconic red double-decker bus. The Tower Bridge and a number of Jeff’s other finished Lego sets were on display recently at 8 Forman
Street in Bradford. Among them were an old-fashioned model train, a Grand Prix race car that turns into a race truck, and a Star Wars collection.

The collection includes Hans Solo’s Millennium Falcon; the dagger shaped, 3,000-piece Super Star Destroyer Executor; and the almost 4,000-piece Death Star. And, of course, R2-D2, whose head rotates.

Jeff reads the assembly instructions once, then gets to work. When he takes a set apart and redoes it, like he’s done with the Falcon four times, he doesn’t have to rely on the instructions very much at all.

Building a Lego set takes a combination of patience, discipline and dexterity — and sometimes an Xfactor: Marie Barnard, a residential program worker, once saw Jeff pull out his calculator while working on a set. The sight still intrigues her.

The sets can take from several days to several weeks to finish, depending on how much free time Jeff has. He also cooks, bakes, rides his bike, plays Xbox and watches horror movies. That’s his spare time. He works at the SPCA three days a week keeping the cat rooms clean and two days a week at Futures Rehabilitation Center. He saves his money for
Legos. “Jeff works hard,” says Paula Vecellio, program director.

For the better part of a decade, Jeff has been at Evergreen Elm, first in the Supported Living program, then at 8 Forman, one of eight residential homes for the intellectually disabled. It’s a tidy, two-story brick house that years ago used to be a doctor’s office and residence. It has a newly remodeled kitchen and a refurbished interior. Three men live there, Jeff and housemates Michael and Charles.

When he got to 8 Forman, Jeff showed one of the staffers something akin to a to-do list. The highlights were getting a new bicycle, adopting a cat and restarting his childhood hobby of constructing Lego sets.

He’s done all three.

Jeff is 27, short and stout, with glasses and medium blond hair. A photo in the hallway shows him mischievously putting his finger on the nose of a mounted bear, another wearing a backwards ballcap and holding a kitten. He brings a folder of recipes into the room on his head. “It’s got a kick!” Jeff says of the Tex-Mex dinner recipe he made for the house. He’s got a kick, too. He’s fun.

Jeff sits cross-legged in his bedroom while talking about his Legos. The twin-size bed is where he puts his sets together. A huge plastic tub on the bed almost overflows with what he estimates is 2,000 Lego pieces.

The bedroom is small and fairly neat, but still typical of a guy in his 20s. The TV has been left on, and a Campbell’s Tomato Soup container sits on the shelf near an unfinished Lego version of the Taj Mahal. (The Taj Mahal set rocketed in popularity when soccer superstar David Beckham revealed in an interview a few years ago that he had put one together.)

Jeff gets a groan from Paula when he bends his right pinky finger almost all the way over. He cracks his knuckles a lot, too. Your mom was wrong. You’ll just grow up to be an expert Lego builder. Some of the plastic pieces are so small, they look like you’d need a tweezer to pick them up. Jeff’s nimble fingers handle them with ease.

Jeff says it’s a relaxing way to unwind after work. Patrick Kaleta, an agitator-type for hockey’s Buffalo Sabres, would agree. Kaleta picked up the Lego habit when he broke his and in a game. He not only used Legos for physical therapy, but stress relief. The famous Danish toy company estimates that 40,000 adults around the world are members of a community called Adult Fans of Lego.

“See, it’s easy,” says Jeff, connecting two tiny pieces of the Falcon. Sure it is, but try it with a curious 15-pound cat hanging around. Forest is Jeff’s kitty, the one in the photo allgrown up, and his best friend. He got him at the SPCA five years ago. The thing is, the “declawed” Forest actually does have one claw — and he knows how to use it.

Lego pieces go missing all the time. “Forest, leave it alone!” Marie sometimes hears Jeff exclaim. The cat lurks over the Tower Bridge in a photo that looks like a comical idea for a disaster movie spoof. Pieces get batted under the fridge. Eleven (Jeff knows the exact number) are missing from the Falcon. At the mention of it, Forest discreetly leaves the room.

Despite the slight stress of Forest’s antics, Jeff’s Lego experience is all positive. He’s so happy when he finishes a set, he’ll let out a, “Yes! Yahoo! I finished it!” He’s not sad when he’s done, either. He knows he can do it all over again.

Lego, which is Latin for “I put together,” challenges one to think systematically and creatively. Program director Melissa McGuire marvels at the fine motor skills the activity must develop.
“It gives him a goal. And keeps his hands busy. It’s therapeutic,” says Marie. “It’s taught him a lot about budgeting, too. He won’t waste his money on junk food, he’ll save it for new Legos.”

About that. These sets are expensive. The Tower Bridge was $299 — “plus tax!” Jeff hastens to add — the Executor even more. He disappears for a few minutes and returns with his laptop displaying the Eiffel Tower set on eBay. It’s becoming rare. He points at the price — well over $1,000. Even though he’ll keep working and saving, Jeff seems to understand this one might be out of reach. On his to-do list, maybe he’ll always have Paris, but at least the Taj Mahal is only a few feet away.

Josh CurcioJeff Hurd – His World of Legos
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Richard Appleby – Knitting by Heart.

Should you stop by 8 Elm Street in Bradford and hear Black Sabbath playing in one part of the house and The Hoppers in another, the strange fusion of heavy metal and southern gospel
music can mean only one thing: Richard Appleby is knitting.

Rich and 10 other men live in this handsome, century-old brick house at the top of the hill near South Avenue, one of Evergreen Elm’s three Supportive Living group homes. “A lot of dynamics in here,” says staff member Rod Woodhouse, being diplomatic. Those dynamics include wildly different musical tastes — Rich’s run toward the religious.

So when things in the house get too loud, or too hectic, Rich retreats to his second-floor room, locks the door behind him and puts on some music that really gets his fingers moving. “This is where it all happens,” he jokingly says while showing his room to a visitor. And when knitting is happening, the other guys know to stay out.

Rich settles into his well-worn knitting chair. Like his fellow knitter Rosey Grier, the old-time professional football player, Rich is a big guy, standing 6’4. He’s 50, cheerful and soft-spoken, with low-cut salt and pepper hair and a goatee. He’s dressed up a bit in a blue dress shirt, gray slacks and an argyle vest.

The somewhat cluttered room has only a limited view of the outside — of the house next door and a sliver of the street — but it does offer everything Rich needs to knit: his chair, his
supplies and a TV he tunes to the gospel music channel. Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” sits on the bed. It seems apt. Under a dome, or in a zone, or in a bubble, is exactly how Rich knits. “I pretend like I’m the only one here. Don’t disturb me!” he says. Rod says he has seen Rich knit while watching amovie; Rich surprises Rod by revealing that he also sometimes
knits in the dark.

Rich unfurls a finished four-footlong purple and pink accessory scarf that’s lacy and delicate and beautiful. It’s a gift for Rod’s wife. “I had no idea what I was doing when I started it,” he says. A friend had brought what Rich calls “rockababy” fabric. It didn’t go well at first. The fabric was thin and fell off, so he switched to a bamboo needle. A week later, it was perfect.

Now he’s working on a purple and gold baby blanket, and a red and black checkerboard piece that might not be wide enough for a baby. Rich says he’ll probably just add a border
to make it so. Rod’s two-year-old grandson will be getting a very cool camo blanket.

Rich sometimes follows a pattern, but usually he just wings it. He hunts for whatever yarn looks good at the dollar stores around town, then makes the best of what he has.

Life’s been like that for Rich. He went through a tough childhood and has had some rough patches as an adult, including mental health challenges. He came to Evergreen Elm in March 2009 and has spent most of those four years with Rod at 8 Elm. “We’ve become friends,” says Rod.

A medication reminder sheet hangs on the wall. Evergreen Elm’s Mobile Medication program worked well for Rich. After being in the program for a time, he now keeps track of his meds himself. Knitting also helps Rich manage. A lot of people find that the pastime is relaxing, and he says that’s true for him as well. But for Rich, it’s not all about helping himself. It’s also about helping others.

His “chemo caps” end up on patients undergoing treatment for cancer. He shows off a couple. One is burgundy and gold with straight road bars, the other red, white and blue with jagged, narrow stripes.

Baby blankets go to BRMC’s Healthy Beginnings Plus. Socks, like the hot pink ones he lays out, and gloves are headed for the Salvation Army. Tiny caps and booties make their way to the nursery at the hospital. “It’s nice to know that they’re wanted and will be put to good use,” he says.

When asked where his generous nature comes from, the answer is immediate: his grandmother. She brought Rich up in Eldred, raising him in the church. His faith has been steadfast. A portrait of Jesus hangs above a fancy clock in his room, and crosses adorn two of the other walls. Rich sings in the choir at St. Bernard’s.

When Rich was 11, his grandmother taught him how to knit. The first thing he tried was a black scarf. He zig-zags his hand, smiling, while demonstrating how ragged his first attempt at knitting turned out. His grandmother passed away when he was 17. “Sometimes when I’m knitting I get sad, but I know she’s in
my room with me,” he says.

It might sound like Rich hides out in his room to shield himself from the world, but that’s far from the truth. When the door is unlocked again, he opens himself up to the rest of the house, and the community, with gusto.

When there’s an issue with one of Rich’s housemates, Rod or another staff member often asks him to step in. Rich’s status as the second-oldest resident works wonders. “I take the
young guys under my wing,” he says. Soon, they’re coming to him for help. Rich even taught housemate James how to knit. James is lefthanded, so it was a little morechallenging, and at first he was selfconscious. He didn’t exactly turn into a devoted knitter, but he does pick it up from time to time.

Away from home, Rich is the former secretary and current vice president of The Guidance Center’s STEPS Drop-in-Center, a program that offers social and recreational activities to people who receive mental health services. He takes notes and runs the meetings when the president can’t attend, among other duties. Recently, he’s been organizing a mental health advocacy group with some of his peers at Dickinson Mental Health Center.

“I like being busy,” he says. And he is. Rich cooks. He does all sorts of arts and crafts. He decorates 8 Elm for practically every holiday. Just before the Fourth, the columns on the home’s spacious front porch were festooned with Rich’s red, white and blue creations.

It seems like the only things he can’t do are sing the Latin verses in church — and go camping. He shakes his head at the idea of camping out. “I tried it. I just can’t do it. I need locks. I need four walls,” he says.

But wouldn’t he enjoy knitting in the woods?

Rich puts on that sneaky little smile of his.

“Maybe.”

Josh CurcioRichard Appleby – Knitting by Heart.
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